Brasher: Use of CRP land for ethanol scares wildlife groups

News index...

America's thirst for alternative motor fuels will take more than corn-derived ethanol to satisfy.

Hence all the interest, from Craig Venter of human genome fame to DuPont, in figuring how to cheaply make alcohol from plant cellulose, the abundant, fibrous material that makes up cornstalks, wheat straw, grass and trees.

But where is all that biomass going to come from?

One obvious source is the 36 million acres of former cropland now idled under the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

Most of the CRP land is planted to grass, which could be harvested for ethanol production without increasing erosion, the reason it's no longer farmed in the first place.

And the grass would come cheap since the landowners already are getting paid for the land: an annual government check that averages about $50 an acre nationwide.

The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that 42 million acres of land, including CRP acreage, could be planted to bioenergy crops such as switchgrass and produce nearly 17 billion gallons of ethanol a year.

That's more than three times the amount of ethanol now being produced from corn and represents more than 10 percent of the nation's annual gasoline consumption.

In addition to switchgrass, a tall variety of prairie grass, there are fast-growing willows and poplars that also can be grown for ethanol production.

But Conservation Reserve land has also become critical habitat for a wide variety of wildlife - pheasants, quail, ducks and turkeys, to name a few. The idea of harvesting that acreage for biofuels has raised alarms among wildlife and hunting groups.

Twenty organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, wrote Congress recently that is was "premature" to consider using CRP land for biofuels without more research.

"Altering the CRP without careful study would unravel the documented benefits CRP currently provides," the groups wrote.

Not so, according to Iowa farmer John Sellers, one of a few landowners who's already allowed to harvest CRP grass for bioenergy. In Sellers' case, the grass is burned to generate electricity as part of the eight-year-old Chariton Valley Biomass Project in southern Iowa.

Farmers who harvest grass from Conservation Reserve land for the project don't get paid for the crop, but there is no reduction in their annual government payment either. (Most proposals for harvesting CRP land for bioenergy envision offering farmers reduced payments in exchange for allowing them to sell the crops for energy.)

Sellers' 140 acres of CRP land still support deer, wild turkeys, pheasants and quail, and he claims he's got "more songbirds than I ever have in my life."

"I don't see any downside" to using CRP land for energy crops," he says. "I see jealousy from other organizations who think this would hurt the absolutely perfect scenario for wildlife cover."

Indeed, the Chariton Valley project has had little impact on wildlife numbers on CRP land, according to Bruce Trautman, an official with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That's because the grass isn't harvested until the fall to avoid nesting seasons, and sensitive areas such as filter strips along streams are left alone entirely, says Trautman, the USDA agency's state conservationist for field operations.

Sellers also plants small plots of corn and milo to serve as feed for the birds.

"It's not unheard of to jump 50 turkeys in a snowstorm in one of my food plots," he says.

The concerns about CRP land have led to talk in Washington of creating a second land-reserve program to set aside additional land for energy crops.

But that could have significant costs: higher prices for food and feed and increased government spending.

Using alternative fuels to reduce America's dependence of oil isn't easy.

Originally published in the Washington Farm Report June 25, 2006